The long and the short of it

THIS COLUMN doesn’t share that much with William Goldman, the acclaimed screenwriter responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and the Princess Bride.

(We’re responsible, by way of comparison, for this column.)

However, we do share Goldman’s obsession with people’s height: in one of his memoirs, the writer describes how he sloped away from pals at a Hollywood poolside when he saw Sylvester Stallone paddling around the shallow end; he wasn’t about to lose out on an opportunity to confirm the Rocky actor’s real height (south of five foot eight, if you’re interested).

Well, this column has never jumped into a swimming-pool to verify a sportsperson’s height, but we’ve come close. We trace our interest to a throwaway line from a GAA star of the eighties, who once mentioned a propos of nothing in particular that he’d always subtracted a couple of inches for programme notes in order to surprise his marker.

This cavalier attitude struck our naivete like Darwin’s revelations struck devout Victorians but our new-found scepticism served us well in other ways. When face-to- face with a certain superstar Irish rugby player, for instance, it came as no surprise to find him a good head taller than published testaments suggested.

The matter arose once again in a phone conversation with Tony Collins, author of A Social History of English Rugby Union, which has just been published and is a fascinating read. Investigating the attitudes of those who spread the gospel of their game from establishments like Rugby, Harrow and Eton, Collins found one simple reason why graduates from such schools excelled at the demanding game. Boys privately educated at public schools in England in the nineteenth century were an average of five inches taller than their counterparts at less exclusive schools, which was an obvious advantage.

HEIGHT has always been an advantage in most rugby positions due to an aphorism which is as strong in Rotorua as it is in Rio: a good big ‘un always beats a good little ‘un.

What exactly constitutes a good big ‘un and a good little ‘un was brought home to this column with a vengeance many years ago when reading the autobiography of All Black lock Andy Haden.

The fearsome second row mentioned casually that his reputation was such that in low-level club games opponents would raise their performance, even if they were only six foot two. (This column was in primary school at the time and understood that the only human being whose height could be definitely established at over six feet tall was Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man).

Of course, even the taller rugby players tend to get lost in the shadows cast by the taller basketball players.

Some years ago this column was in Las Vegas where the night took us, via many a wearying detour, to one of the many classy memorabilia-strewn eateries (“The BRA worn by PRINCESS LEIA in StAR Wars! Muhammad Ali’s VERY OWN stockings (slightly soiled)!”).

One of the prize exhibits was a plaster cast of Shaquille O’Neal’s hands, and patrons were invited to place their own in the cast and compare.

It is fair to say this column’s hands were lost in the hectare or so of smooth, curving plaster each of O’Neal’s hands had indented. As an emasculating experience it was about on a par with answering the phone at home many years ago and being asked ‘if your mother is at home at all little girl’ (my voice broke the very next week).

Even O’Neal has to look up to someone, however. The Chinese basketballer Yao Ming has a couple of inches on Shaq, which gives us a chance to air one of our favourite height-related stories.

When Yao was a teenager he was earmarked for greatness, as both his parents had played international basketball. However, to be on the safe side the People’s Republic enlisted scientists to predict the heights such prodigies were likely to achieve when fully grown.

Their method? Getting the youngsters to squat in front of them, reaching between their legs and weighing their testicles.

A true story. Not a tall one.

* michael.moynihan@examiner.ie; Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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